MIAMI (AP) — The former New York Yankees’ American League batting champion knows his place now is in the dugout.
As manager of the Miami Marlins, Don Mattingly finds it easy to resist any temptation to step to the plate and show his pitchers who he is — or was.
“And try and hit them?” Mattingly says, sounding slightly horrified by the idea. “No. No, no, no. No trying to hit.
“I do step in a lot during bullpens, when we’re trying to see if a guy has changed, if he’s working on something. But trying to hit? No chance.”
Like most 59-year-olds, Mattingly knows his limitations. He has been dealing with many of them as the Marlins’ manager since 2016.
Their perennially small payroll makes it tough to win, and in Mattingly’s first four seasons in Miami, the loss total rose each year — from 82 to 85 to 98 to 105. That would get most skippers fired.
But while there has been heavy organizational turnover since Derek Jeter’s group bought the Marlins in late 2017, he kept Mattingly. That decision paid off last year, when the Marlins made an improbable run to their first playoff berth since 2003 and then swept the Chicago Cubs in the first round before losing to Atlanta.
Mattingly made the most of a patchwork roster ravaged by an early-season coronavirus outbreak, and the Marlins finished above .500 even though they were outscored by 41 runs. He was chosen National League Manager of the Year, and baseball applauded.
“The entire industry knows what Donnie brings to the table — extreme baseball intelligence and sheer class,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. “The Marlins went through a rebuilding process, and that’s tough to deal with. What he was able to accomplish last year was pretty special. I think there were a lot of people who were really happy for him, having to walk through some fire to get where they got.”
Mattingly’s playing career coincided with a rare Yankees title drought. He subsequently managed the Los Angeles Dodgers to three consecutive first-place finishes in the NL West, but went 8-11 in the postseason with them.
So he has never reached the World Series as a player, coach or manager. The Marlins might still be at least a year or two away from serious contention, but their refurbished farm system now ranks among baseball’s best, with an envious stockpile of promising young pitchers and outfielders.
For now, Mattingly’s job remains to nurture young talent so an underfinanced team can overachieve. He considers his ability to relate to players one of his strengths, perhaps because he was an overachiever himself.
“As far as communicating with players, I’ve always felt pretty comfortable with that part of it,” Mattingly says. “I experienced a lot in my playing days, coming up not as a high draft pick. I had to work my way through.
“I got to the big leagues pretty young, and had that relationship with older players. Then I evolved into a pretty good player, and there were the things that come with that, like the contracts. So you feel like you experienced a lot.”
A 19th-round pick by the Yankees, Mattingly reached the majors at 21 in 1982. He won a batting title in 1984, was an All-Star first baseman for six consecutive years and finished with a career average of .307 in 14 seasons.
“He sees the game about as well as anybody I’ve been around,” Marlins hitting coach Eric Duncan says. “Somebody who did it as well as he did, he knows what goes into the preparation side, and how important it is to build relationships and trust with guys.”
Shortstop Miguel Rojas, who has played for Mattingly for six seasons in Los Angeles and Miami, praised his manager’s even-keel disposition and focus on preparation.
“And remember, he was a really good player who can help you with a lot of different parts of the game,” Rojas says. “He’s not just putting a lineup together.”
The Marlins have been a model of instability for much of their 28-year history, and Mattingly has lasted longer as their manager than anyone else. Like many people, he was surprised by Tony La Russa’s return to the dugout this season with the Chicago White Sox at 76, but doesn’t dismiss the idea he might still be working at that age.
“I feel like honestly, as a manager, I get better with age, because you have more experience,” Mattingly says. “You just have to stay in tune with the game. Seventeen years from now? I can’t say yes. But I really honestly can’t say no.”
When work’s going well, why place limitations on longevity?
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